September 29, 2008 | Comments ()

By Miscellaneous | Books | September 29, 2008 |


I fell into reading biographies and memoirs in the last four or five years, a discovery I wish I’d made much sooner. For some reason, I used to associate biographies with the former show on A&E (back when the network didn’t rely so heavily on crime reality in its programming) that was full of interesting tidbits and sound bites on famous folk but lacking in meaty substance and character analysis. Fortunately, I have now gotten over myself in regards to the true-life genre, and I’d love to list recent notable reads. But alas, they don’t pay me per word here. I’m just a volunteer. Consider me Pajiba’s Candystriper. Call it literary voyeurism, but I’ve become mild to moderately addicted to peering into the lives of famous and not-so famous-but-really-interesting people. That shit is fascinating.

My mother lent me Enchantment, one of her several books on Audrey Hepburn. She has long adored Audrey, and if you had to pick a celebrity to crush on, you can’t do much worse than the iconic actress. Donald Spoto, who has penned a substantial number of Hollywood biographies, paints a breezy, delicate portrait of Hepburn, a fan’s portrait. However he does not erase all traces of Hepburn’s foibles and less attractive qualities, only moves them to the background in the shadows. He begins with an examination of Hepburn’s parents and posits that it is her relationship (or the failure of this relationship) with her mother and father that fuel the insecurities that come to haunt her. Her father, a British layabout, and mother, a Dutch Baroness, did not experience lasting matrimonial bliss. They split when Hepburn was only six, and her father beat a hasty retreat, almost completely severing ties with his daughter until she was in her thirties. Hepburn herself admitted that she never really felt she had a father. Her mother was a tough nut, a survivor of two broken marriages and a single mother to three children, who worked hard, taking a variety of menial jobs to support her family. But she was not an affection woman and rarely openly expressed love for her daughter who craved her mother’s approval.

Audrey Hepburn’s rise to stardom literally read like a fairytale, a yarn spun for hopeful young wannabes with stars in their eyes and dreams of fame falling into their lap. After a brutal childhood eking out survival living in Nazi occupied Holland, Hepburn and her mother moved to England where Audrey could study ballet and pursue a career in dance. Her dreams of being a prima ballerina fizzled, and she found herself as a popular chorine in the burgeoning post-War musical theatre scene. Hepburn was able to parlay this moderate success as a bit player into a film contract with a small British studio. It was during the filming of one of her contractually obligated roles in the south of France that she was spotting by the writer Collette and tapped to play the lead in a stage version of Collette’s novella Gigi. This role brought her fame on Broadway which led to her first Hollywood film role in Roman Holiday. Her breakthrough performance made her an instant star and won her that coveted naked gold bald guy. For most of her career, Hepburn would make reference to her relative inexperience as an actress; she had no formal training, didn’t slog for years treaded the boards in London’s West End or on Broadway. In 1949, she made her debut on the British stage and four years later clutched an Oscar in her begloved hands. While she lacked the credentials to be a successful film actress, Audrey Hepburn possessed that rare, innate star quality that drew audiences to her.

Spoto reveals that Hepburn was quite the contradiction in both her life and her career. She famously bucked the conventional style of the fifties, choosing not to pad her slim figure but embrace it and enhance it with clothing from then up-and-coming designer Hubert de Givenchy. With a lean silhouette and angular features, she became an unlikely style icon in the Fifties and early Sixties where the buxom hourglass figure was the standard fashion plate. Yet throughout her film career she was insecure about her image. For each role, Hepburn brought along her own hairstylist and makeup artist with whom she felt had an understanding of what made her shine. As her clout in Hollywood increased, she was even able to request a certain cinematographer that she felt comfortable working with. For her role in Two for the Road, she was asked to do without her Givenchy designs and wear off-the-rack clothing, and this caused her much consternation as she felt Givenchy knew how to accentuate her figure best. Yet in interviews, her costars and directors lauded Hepburn for her decidedly un-diva like behavior. She was humble, polite, never demanding, and treated all members of the cast and crew with respect.

Haunted by her parent’s broken marriages, Audrey Hepburn intended her wedded life to be a successful one. Her goal, even the start of her career, was to retire from Hollywood at a young age and fulfill her dream of motherhood. It was this dream that kept her locked in two brittle, dead marriages. She desperately wanted her relationships to work but engaged in a series of star-crossed extramarital affairs with costars such as William Holden, Albert Finney, and Ben Gazzara. Motherhood seemed to elude her as she suffered several miscarriages and a stillborn child. Hepburn did eventually have two sons, but the previous struggles to conceive, coupled with her failed marriages, plunged her into periodic bouts of depression. Spoto chronicles Hepburn’s personal struggles gently, as a close friend would, never with an air of salaciousness.

If there were any faults to the book, it would be Spoto’s obvious admiration for his subject. He finds little fault with any of her film performances, heaping enormous praise (not wholly undue) for her work in A Nun’s Story. While the cynic in me could argue that Spoto intentionally omitted negative remarks about Hepburn from Hollywood, it isn’t hard to accept that her colleagues genuinely adored her and simply didn’t have a slanderous word to say against her.

For it was later in her life that Hepburn took on the biggest role of her career, the role that she would come to love the most and would characterize her generous, loving spirit, as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Hepburn’s family was saved from starvation at the close of World War II by an early incarnation of UNICEF, and she felt very a strong connection to the work the organization was doing to protect the lives of children. We’re in an age where “charity work” is as pervasive in Hollywood as Botox and veneers, but when Hepburn decided to work with UNICEF she wasn’t interested in simply hosting glitzy fundraisers in Givenchy gowns. She threw herself into the role, traveling into dangerous, war-torn areas without the comfortable trappings of a star. She wasn’t about to shy away from the misery, cradling children dying of starvation, and she conducted numerous press conferences and interviews to bring attention to the work UNICEF was doing in the name of the world’s youth.

When Audrey Hepburn passed away at age 63, the world lost a luminous talent, a style icon, a gracious soul, and a strong advocate for children. In her own words, “Giving is living. If you stop wanting to give, there’s nothing to live for.”

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

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100 Books in One Year #6: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto

Cannonball Read / AlabamaPink

Books | September 29, 2008 | Comments ()




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